Each month we bring you the latest arrival to streaming service Lightbox, the good people who sponsor The Spinoff. This month features some HBO classics and a brilliant pair of ‘00s dramas. //
News broke today that Lightbox will be free to all Spark broadband customers, an extremely fortuitous turn of events for everyone in that bracket, because there’s been a huge tranche of exceptional television arriving in recent weeks. We’ve picked our favourites of the news arrivals, with the full list running below. Click the names to go straight through and watch or save the shows on Lightbox.
Watching Westerns growing up they always seemed pretty cartoonish. Good guys (sheriffs), bad guys (bandits), racist stereotypes (‘injuns’). But as a kid I just figured that’s how things were in the old days. Simple, binary, filled with stetsons and tinnily implausible gunshots.
And despite the best efforts of Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood and what have you, the Wild West remained, in my mind at least, not all that wild. At least by today’s standards – I’d back the Sinaloa Cartel against ‘60s and ‘70s TV and film western dudes any day, you know?
Then Deadwood came along, with Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen at its heart, and suddenly the lawless frontier became a real place, rich with detail, drunk out of its mind and keen for a root. The show ran for three peerless seasons, won a bunch of Emmys then got canceled, probably because each episode looks like it cost $50m, and it didn’t rate like Game of Thrones to justify the expense.
Regardless of the premature truncation, the Deadwod remains an allegorical masterpiece which casts a jaded eye over the fall of one America and the rise of another, and is indisputably one of the best shows HBO ever made. / DG
Let us not dwell for too long on the problematic pop culture trend that celebrates the white male serial killer as an ‘artist’. There are too many terrifying tattoos of Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter and Dexter out there. What I am comfortable celebrating, however, is good TV like Dexter. A blood-spatter analyst by day, vigilante serial killer by night, Dexter Morgan works from the inside to bring his own form of justice to criminals that have gotten away with murder (often literally).
Although there have been mixed reactions to some of the later seasons, the first few seasons of Dexter are riveting. Much like Breaking Bad (which arrived two years later), it does a sensational job of putting the police within arms reach of our anti-hero, then cutting them off at the elbow. It’s tense, slick and boasts the most visceral and delicious opening credits sequence of all time. / AC
We’ve already covered this excellent new exclusive in our Herald column:
“Until a few years ago Amazon was chiefly known as a good place to get cheap books on the internet. Now it’s a sprawling monolith, selling everything from uranium ore to infant circumcision training dummies, while also being by far the biggest supplier of cloud computing in the world.
It’s also branched into television production, chiefly to convince people to join its Amazon Prime service, which combines cheap shipping with great television. A strange company sure, but who cares? Its shows are amongst the best being made for any platform.
Their first hit was Transparent (also exclusive to Lightbox), a brutal yet sensitive dramedy about a 70-year-old transgender woman coming out to her family. It just won a pair of Golden Globes, and Amazon followed the show up with Mozart in the Jungle, a goofy, engaging show set amongst the jaded young of the New York classical scene.
It’s almost over-laden with famous names: developed by Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman; starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal, Malcolm McDowell and Lola Kirke (Gone Girl) and mostly directed by Paul Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie). The show starts a little unevenly – the characters veer into caricature too often, and it can feel a little too safe at times – but it grows into something extremely engaging, with excellent performances and an easygoing approachability which feels rare and refreshing in an era where so much comedy is embracing darkness a little too enthusiastically.” / DG
It’s going to be a huge year for Patricia Arquette because of a little flick called Boyhood. After years of slogging it out on the tremendous and buzzworthy film, it’s easy to forget that she was also psyching-out at Medium for a good six years during production. That’s a whopping seven seasons of television produced during that time, rather than about three minutes of a Linklater film. If you want to see the quickest supercut of Arquette’s different haircuts and body states – watch Boyhood. If you want to see Patricia Arquette talking to cool ghosts, spirits and demons in her dreams – watch Medium.
Arquette plays Allison Dubois (based on this real-life hairstyle guru), an attorney who uses her supernatural abilities to solve cold cases. Jam packed with homages to other spooky greats such as Carrie and Twilight Zone, it’s right in the middle of a family drama and a Goosebumps episode. It’s hard for the modern woman to juggle having a career, raising kids and talking to possessed dolls. / AC
Common lore has it that Sex and the City was the show which turned HBO from a quiet films-and-sports backwater to the TV’s agenda setting monolith we know and love today. There’s some truth in that – its groundbreaking subject matter and phenomenal success gave the channel the confidence it needed to usher in The Sopranos and The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm and all that good stuff.
But before them all was Oz, a brutal, nightmarish drama set inside a modern prison. It ran for six seasons starting in 1997, and showed where television was going – smart, unblinking, violent – in a way that makes it a parent to much of what came afterwards.
Some elements haven’t aged too well – the lighting is too harshly mock dramatic, and Harold Perrineau’s beat poetry-style narration is a reasonably insufferable device. But the show does so much more right, and delivers season after compelling season of dark, desperate television. / DG
“Susan and Bruce Miller move their family to a Chicago suburb, anticipating a new life of barbecues and kids on swings. When they meet new neighbors the Deckers, the Millers realize the kids aren’t the ones doing the swinging.”
My immediate reaction to the Swingtown trailer was that it resembled a softcore porno. And I wasn’t far off. Set in 1976, the series follows a spritely young couple who move to the ‘burbs and meet their erotic neighbours (one of which is a pilot with a moustache and a very sensual cockpit). What follows is a bizarre tangle of key parties, spa orgies and soft focus close ups of hands as relationships strain (and strengthen) under the swinging mentality of the post-sexual-liberation fallout.
Understanding the show’s context seems key to explaining it’s bizarre tone. The makers had originally pitched it to HBO, but they already had their exploratory sexual content quota filled with Big Love and Tell Me That You Love Me. Pitching it beyond cable channels, the pilot (hilariously named Pilot because of the pun and because of the boning pilot that features in it) was picked up by network channel CBS. As a result, they had to tone down all the nudity and explicit sex they had planned – and focus mostly on the hands and fingers. Voila, that’s how seventies softcore vibes are made. / AC
David Lynch’s 1990-91 masterpiece Twin Peaks is one of a small handful of shows that legitimately changed television, blowing out its dramatic potential and fusing elements of thriller, procedural and horror into a ceaselessly compelling whole. It’s so good they’re bringing the whole gang back together 25 years on to reunite, but it’s hard to imagine the original series being topped.
The plot covers a small town murder which in time reveals a darkness lurking all around, and you could argue that describes a good percentage of all current fancy television (from Fargo to Top of the Lake). Twin Peaks did it first and best though, and unlike so many sadly dated groundbreaking-for-their-era shows, this one remains impossibly haunting today. / DG
Angel of Death
The Battlestar Galactica miniseries
Orphan Black Season 2
American Horror Story Season 2: Asylum
Sons of Anarchy season 5
Community season 4
Moon TV season 4-6
House of Lies s1-2
Nurse Jackie s1-5
(* = exclusive)
Black Sails season 2*
Suits season 4 part 2*
Lost Girl season 5*
Better Call Saul*
Vikings season 3*
The Killing season 3